Jaycee Ranger rubbed her lower back. The over four-hour drive from Grandfather’s ranch to Houston had not helped her back that was already feeling the effects of her late-in-life pregnancy. Although these days, she supposed plenty of forty-year-old women had babies. Just that a year ago, she would never have thought she would be one of them.
Sneaking a peek at her husband sitting beside her in the dark wood and leather waiting area, she could feel Rex’s worry for her and the baby. She reached over and gently squeezed his hand, offering a smile when his gaze met hers. “We’ll be fine.” He nodded, but she felt his anxiety nonetheless.
“Ms. Ranger, Mister Tyler will see you now,” the young man, whom Jaycee guessed was an intern, or perhaps J.T.’s personal assistant, smiled at them.
She felt the twinge as she tried to rise from the leather sofa. She was grateful for the hand that Rex held out for her. Graceful, she was not. At thirty-four weeks and wearing the one maternity dress that she had bought, just for these rare business meetings, she was more worried about getting up without giving them all a show. With Rex’s assistance, she managed that, just barely.
They followed the man into an office that looked very much like the waiting area. The man that she had known since that first year of law school sat behind a mahogany desk that would have dwarfed her. Behind J.T. hung the seal of his office, the eagle with an olive branch clutched in its outstretched talons and resting on the red, white, and blue shield.
Qui Pro Domina Justitia Sequitur – The one wishes to rule must follow her justice. Though much was wrong in this nation, she believed that this man still believed in the purposes of those words. That Justice was always aimed at the emancipation of humans from the bonds of slavery. If she had not, then they would not have made this trip.
Jaycee took stock of the man who rose from behind that desk. There was gray at the temples of his short cut hair brown hair. And more than a few lines crisscrossed his forehead, she supposed J.T. had more than his share of worries and concerns to frown about. The lines around his mouth were just as deep. However, he had not let his athletic build go to fat.
She almost burst out laughing when she felt the jealousy emanating from her husband. She looked over at Rex, ‘A girl can appreciate what’s on the menu, even if she is completely full from her delicious dinner.’
Rex did not smile as he replied on their mate link, ‘Where is your faulted equality, Nʉ Sʉmʉ? You almost scratched that poor waitress’s eyes out for flirting when we stopped for lunch, and I was not even assessing her…”
Jaycee knew that Rex made a good point, and they would take it up later. Their conversation halted when J.T. came from behind the desk and took her hands in his. “Jaycee, what has it been five years? More?”
This man had not been the U. S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas when the whole Sean thing had happened almost a year ago. So, he was right. The last time they had met was some political function that her ex-husband had demanded she attend with him. She noticed his eyes drifting to Rex at her side.
“Yes, it has been a long time. I’m sure you’re aware that Sean and I divorced a few years ago?”
He nodded his head and glanced down at the floor, “Yes, and I’m sorry about his death. He might have made some wrong choices, but that is not how I would have wanted things to end.”
J.T.’s smile was tight when he finally met her gaze again. “If you’re here to discuss the release of any marital assets, I’m afraid I can’t help you with that…”
“Actually, that is not why I’m here. But I’m getting ahead of myself. J.T., I’d like to introduce my husband, Rex Ranger.” The men shook hands and did that whole he-man thing of staring one another down.
J.T. shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. “Well, Jaycee, I don’t want to be rude, but I am pretty busy right now. I am trying to finish off a few things before my flight to Los Angeles.”
She lifted her eyebrow, and the man continued, “No, this one is personal. My baby brother is getting married. And the great Marianne Buford Walker Tyler is not pleased with his choice of bride. She has demanded that the family show in mass to express her displeasure.”
J.T. nodded; she remembered her one encounter with the woman. Not that things had ever been that serious with J.T., but his mother had made sure he knew that Jaycee was not an appropriate choice. This mysterious bride had her sympathies.
She glanced at the young man who stood by the side of the desk, “I won’t take long, but I think you’ll want to hear what I have to say. In private.”
The lines on his face deepened even more as he studied her for a moment. “Can I ask what this is about?”
“McBride,” Jaycee allowed the single word to hang in the air.
“I’ll call you if I need anything, Trent. And would you make certain that my wife and the children are on their way to the airport, please?”
The younger man looked over his shoulder as he left. She could see that he was not pleased to be dismissed so quickly. She wished that Angel or Grandfather or this new guy Will were here. She wanted to know if he, too, was a part of the conspiracy.
J.T. waved to the burgundy leather chairs across from his desk as he returned to his own. “Have you remembered anything else then? Something that your husband or McBride said?”
She felt Rex tense at the use of that word in reference to Sean. She remembered the conversation that she had overheard between Rex and his cousin that morning. Yes, as good as things were, they still had shit they needed to settle between them. And most of it was her fault. But right now, they had other business to attend to.
“No, I’m here on behalf of a client.”
“A client?” Those lines were back around his mouth and forehead.
“Yes, Laura Reynolds.”
“Laura Reynolds is your client?”
Jaycee nodded her head as he continued, “Then, you are here to negotiate her surrender into federal custody for questioning?”
“No? Jaycee, need I remind you that there is a federal warrant for your client as a material witness?”
“No, but need I remind you, J.T., that your witnesses are not fairing too well?”
Jaycee could see by the frown and slump of her friend’s shoulders that she had scored a direct hit. She used the small window that surprise gave her to launch her case.
“Laura gave birth four days ago. She’d like to live long enough to see her daughter grow up. And we both know that you have a leak in your organization. Probably a few of them.”
“Where is she?”
“Safe. With her baby’s father guarding them.”
“That doesn’t tell me a dang thing, Jaycee.”
She knew J.T. was flustered when the man pseudo-cursed. “And I don’t intend to. Not about where you can find my client.”
“Then, why come here?”
She held up a USB reader, “Because you want this.”
“What is that?” She noticed his ears turning red and knew that his anger was building.
“That is an email that Laura was blind cc’d into on her final day. And the encrypted file that was attached to it.”
“So, what? Who’s the email from and to? Who sent it to her?”
“It’s from Stewart Childress to Gerald and Stephen McBride. But Laura does not know who sent it to her.”
“Why didn’t your client come forward sooner with this information?”
“Because your federal agent walked into her office and fired her as she opened it.”
“If that’s the case, how did she end up with copies of the email and files? Weren’t those confidential work product and the property of McBride Industries?”
“You’ll have to work your way around that one if you want to get whatever is on here admitted into evidence. That’s not our problem. But to answer your question, Laura was working on her personal laptop and had not booted up her work computer yet that morning. So, the file was downloading when Agent Ranger walked in.”
That frown deepened even more, and she knew that Tyler was trying to put some pieces of the puzzle together. She was happy to supply those, “Yes, Ryan Ranger and my husband are cousins. That’s how I came to be involved with Laura Reynolds.”
J.T. shook his head as she continued, “Ryan is with Laura and their daughter now.” She dropped the bomb and waited for its impact.
Rex watched the man’s face. He knew that Ryan and this Will guy both believed this man was clean. One of the good guys. But life had taught him something else as well. Sometimes ‘good’ people did the wrong thing, sometimes even for the right reasons. Even Jaycee admitted this guy was a stickler for procedures. And Rex knew that his politics were not always on the ‘right’ side, not when it came to the interests of the common person. Could someone like that be trusted?
Rex had learned the hard way that he could not always trust even his instincts when it came to sniffing out evil. But he could not allow his pregnant wife to face this man alone. And he knew how important this was to her. Jaycee knew something this man did not, might not ever know. Justice and the law were not always on the same side.
He remembered when their bond was new, before he got tired of all that legal mumbo jumbo, and taught her how to erect mental barriers. ‘Justice was for the strong.’ But his wife did all that she could to defend the rights of the weak, the poor, and the abused. He knew that sometimes that battle was hard for her. So, the least he could do was stand beside her, especially now.
The man tented his fingers in front of him. “Stephens told me that Ryan was on leave, some family emergency.”
Jaycee snorted and shook her head, “Well, I suppose protecting your newborn child and her mother from unknown bad guys and federal investigators with a leak is a family emergency. But you should know that he resigned. Conflict of interest since he is involved with a potential witness. Wonder why Stephens didn’t tell you that?”
Rex smiled at the way that she planted seeds of doubt without directly accusing the man of any impropriety. “Why are you here, Jaycee? If not to arrange the peaceful surrender of your client, what possible business do you have the US Attorney’s office?”
Her smile broadened at those words. Rex knew that it was opening his wife was looking for. “My client was not privy to the things that Gerald and Stephen were involved in, as with most of the other senior management that you have investigated. And as soon as she realized that the contents of this email might be of interest to the investigation, she is willing to surrender the USB to you.”
“Why do I feel a but coming, Jaycee?”
“I’m not sure I would call it a but. Jaycee will hand over these files. She will even be willing to testify about how the information came into her custody if this comes to trial. In return, she and Ryan are asking that you drop the material witness warrant that you issued for her arrest.”
“Why would I do that? How do I know that she does not have other information that she is withholding? For that matter, how do I know she was not involved? She was engaged to Stephen’s best friend for two years. Stewart Childress disappeared, too, you know. No, I want to question her. Under oath.”
“Not happening. Not now, anyway. You’re a father. Would your wife have been up for being arrested and interrogated for hours less than a week after giving birth? Have you become that heartless, J.T.?”
Rex barely managed to stifle the chuckle as the man shifted uncomfortably in his chair. He knew that Jaycee would not relent. Nʉ Sʉmʉ was a strong advocate for the things that she believed in. It was one of the most things he loved most about her.
“Here’s the offer, J.T. I give you these files now. You get your forensics team on them, try to decrypt them. In exchange, you rescind the warrant. In a few weeks, when Laura is up to it, you alone may meet with Laura to take her deposition. On neutral ground, some public place of our choosing.”
“Dagnabbit, Jaycee, you know I can’t do that.”
“And you know that you can, J.T. You are the lead investigator. The federal agents answer to you, not the other way round.”
The man thumped his tented fingers against his lower lip as he stared at Rex’s mate. “How do I know that the information in those files is worth it?”
“You don’t. Hell, we don’t. But this is all my client knows about anything. Other than some questionable land deals, but you have already been down that rabbit hole. As much as she and Ryan truly do want to help, this is all she has. Is it that unreasonable, J.T.?”
More thumping as silence filled the austere office. Jaycee pushed harder, “I know this is a career-making case for you. But I also realize this is about seeing that justice is served. I admire that, J.T.”
“But would it be justice for Chloe Ranger to grow up without her mother? An innocent woman whose only mistake was working for the wrong people? And you know I’m right. You know that you cannot guarantee Laura’s safety.”
He shook his head, “We found the leak. The agents that allowed McBride to escape. One of them is in federal custody now.”
Rex looked at his wife. Their gazes locked for a moment before she spoke, “One? Do you believe that there is only one leak? In a case this big, with that kind of money involved?”
“Do you know something we don’t, Mrs. Ranger?”
“Common sense and suspicions. Who can you truly trust, J.T.?”
The man sighed, and his shoulders slumped, “Honestly, I’m not sure I know anymore.”
“Then, please, do the right thing here. Give an innocent woman time to recover and bond with her child. Don’t put her life in danger for this case, especially since Laura Reynolds cannot tell one damned thing more than I have today. Do the right thing, J.T.”
He nodded his head slowly, reluctantly. “But I reserve the right to reissue that warrant, if necessary.”
“But before you do, you’ll call me and allow me to surrender my client into safe hands. Of our choosing.”
“What aren’t you telling me, Jaycee? What do you know?”
“As I said, I can’t prove anything. Some of it comes down to personal history. I know that you are aware of the incident between Laura’s sister and the sheriff of Sebida County.”
He nodded his head without saying anything. “Did you send Kerr after her? I wouldn’t have thought you would resort to such underhanded tricks as witness intimidation.”
“You know I can’t comment on an ongoing federal investigation, Jaycee.”
“Fair enough. But be aware, the Reynolds family has long-standing issues with the ‘good’ sheriff. We would not be pleased for him to insert himself further into the situation. I can assure you that none of the parties involved remain under his jurisdiction.”
Jaycee continued, “As does Ryan Ranger have professional issues with his former supervisor Stephens. We would appreciate it if the nature and content of this meeting remain confidential for that reason.”
“You’re asking me to keep pertinent details from my primary investigator, Jaycee?”
“Let’s just say that the timing and circumstances of his promotion are suspicious. To my knowledge, there were no suicides, accidents, or missing evidence during his predecessor’s tenure?”
Rex beamed with pride at the sly cunning of Nʉ Sʉmʉ. Ryan’s suspicions and ‘that feeling’ of this unknown Will were not evidence. But he had spent enough time with Grandfather to know that his were not the only type of ‘gifts’ in this world.
His cousin’s ‘golden gut’ had proven itself time and again. And Ryan seemed to have faith in the other man as well, that was good enough for him. But not for this man. Or Jaycee’s court of law where you were supposedly innocent until proven guilty.
“But I’m sure that you know your people better than I do,” she smiled. He would not have wanted to be on the other end of that smile. He lived for Jaycee’s smiles, but not this one with its subtle hint of superiority. “So, do we have a deal, J.T.?”
The man was silent for a long moment as he met Jaycee’s gaze, then he nodded, “Yes, as I said, for now, at least.”
“The way I see it, I did you a favor, one less witness for you to worry about protecting,” she passed him the USB stick.
“I’ll want that laptop, too. I need our forensics team to go over it. See if there might be other files.”
“I understand. We’ll bring it to the meet. But for now, it might be prudent if that evidence, as well as Laura Reynolds, were in other hands. I’d hate for something like that to disappear from the evidence closet without a trace. Before the files could be decoded.”
“This way, we get the information from the files without endangering the evidence itself?” The man smiled, “After your baby is born, if you want to go back to law full-time, give me a call.”
Rex frowned; he could not help it. Whether it was the idea of Jaycee taking a job that would mean a move away from the ranch, or working with this man who she shared so much history with, he was not sure. Then he felt her gentle touch as she laced her fingers through his and squeezed firmly.
“Thanks, J.T. I know what a compliment that is, but I have the best of both worlds. My time is my own to control and the clients of my choosing.” Jaycee began to rise from her chair, but Rex noticed how hard that was. He stood and gently tugged her hand until she stood by his side.
The other man held out his hand, and Jaycee released his to shake it. “The way you make that sound, maybe I should come to work for you.”
“Or maybe you should give some thought to being your own master?”
Tyler only nodded, but Rex knew those words were more profound than he realized as the man turned and shook his hand too. “I’ll see you both out.”
As he opened the door to the reception area, Rex noticed another man in a dark suit. His greying hair impeccably styled, “Stephens, I don’t remember that we had an appointment?”
The man shifted his considerable weight from foot to foot, “We don’t. I just thought that we should touch base on things. Since you will be out of town for a few days.”
Rex saw Tyler frown and knew that those seeds of doubt that Jaycee had planted were germinating. “You have something new, then?”
The other man shook his head, “No, I just thought…”
Jaycee smiled as she turned to her old friend, “I’ll be in touch.”
Rex placed his hand at the small of her back, and his finger gently massaged the spot that he could feel was bothering her most as they turned to leave.
“Was that Riley’s widow? What was she doing here?”
“She’s an old friend from law school. She just stopped by to say hello while she and her husband are in town. But since you are here, Stephens, I have something you can do. Rescind the warrant for Laura Reynolds’ arrest.”
“What? But I thought…”
“I gave an order, Stephens. I don’t have the time or inclination to discuss it further. Just do it.”
Nʉ Sʉmʉ was beaming by the time they closed the office door behind them. “Pretty sly little fox, aren’t you?”
“I’ll need to be,” her brows furrowed. “Do you think it was just a coincidence that the man showed up just as we were leaving?”
“What are you saying?”
“Just that if this is one of the cartels, that’s big money. Enough money to buy off lots of people. Doesn’t it make sense that they would have moles in more than just the feds? Like the U.S. Attorney’s Office too? Maybe even the McBride defense team? We don’t know who we can trust.”
He felt the weight of responsibility on those tiny shoulders as he began once more to massage the stiff muscles in her lower back. He had been feeling her pain for days. “I know that I can trust you, Nʉ Sʉmʉ. And our little band of co-conspirators. But right now, sweetheart, I have other things in mind.”
She smiled up at him weakly, and he felt the strength draining from her body. “What did you have in mind?”
“It is too late to head back now. You have spent over four hours cramped in the truck already today. I propose that we find a hotel, order room service, soak in some posh ass tub big enough for both of us, and I massage these knots out of your back properly. We can head back home tomorrow.”
“Or the next day?” Jaycee leaned into him and allowed him to be strong when she was weak. Knowing that there would come a time when he relied just as heavily on her.